Aurora- The Northern Lights. The sound of it is so fascinating, isn’t it? It compels my imagination to sprout wings and fly to a world where the frozen tundra rules one and all, and everything is covered in a blanket of snow. The bare, snow capped, peaks towering in the background are a grim reminder of the cold, unforgiving tundra. It brings forth to the observer the fragility of life and the futility of its struggle against the cold, the outcome of which is already a foregone conclusion. The pines stand before me, tall and ominous as ever. Each needle, glistening like steel, hangs rigid under the weight of the icicles. Hidden from view, in a cliff to the right a wolf howls to its ancestors and curdles my blood with fear. And then, I’m distracted by a light stealing into my eye through the corner. I look up. My eyes go wide with wonder. It is beautiful. It is like fire in the horizon. Only, it is green. Its dancing flames root me to the spot. The ever-changing shapes whisper something into my ear, I don’t know what, but it soothes me. And in the moment when nature unfurls its true prowess, hope steals through me……
This is how I imagine the northern lights; my imagination, no doubt, having been shaped by Jack London. But, the aurora, or the aurora borealis as these beautiful lights are known, have inspired many other myths and legends. The twisty cunning dragons of oriental folklore and the thousand-headed dragons of Europe that knights frequently slaughtered in gallant epic battles are said to have been inspired by the auroral activities. It is also believed that the gigantic bridge Bifrost that the Norse Gods used to travel between Heaven and Earth has been derived from the aurora. Finnish mythology talks of a river “Rutja”, standing in fearsome flames marking the boundary between the world of the living and those who have passed on. Eskimos, on the other hand, believe the aurora to be living. They believe it you whistle to it will sweep down and take you away while clapping your hands will force it to retreat. Another Eskimo school of thought propagates that the aurora is nothing but the lights from the spirits who play football with the skull of a walrus. Talk about rubbishing romantic notions!
Whatever the belief, there is no doubt that these lights have a big hand in shaping human imagination. And, why not? The exotic forms that they present themselves to human eyes are a forceful stimulus to our fantasies. Sometimes they appear as tall, quiet arcs and at times, they are the mysterious dancing flames in the sky. They attire themselves in a variety of colours. Different shades of red, green, deep blue may be adorned by them. Need I say more of the captivating, seductive nature of the aurora? As James Thomson wrote
You cannot rob me of free nature’s grace,
You cannot shut the windows of the sky
Through which Aurora shows her brightening face.
– Castle of Indolence
I find myself in utter agreement with him.
Like scores of other natural phenomenon which brought wonder and fear alike in the minds of man, the mystery of aurora has also been unravelled. Far from the romantic notions of celestial bridges and rivers or serpentine dragons corrupting human minds, the aurora is truly spawned by Phoebus.
The sun throws out charged particles from its midst in all directions because of the million degree temperature of its outermost layer. These particles travel at about a million miles per hour and constitute what is known as the solar wind. The solar wind can be likened to the invisible hand of death. If allowed to enter earth it would wipe out all traces of life. But it is stopped from orchestering the aforesaid destruction by the magnetic field around the earth (the protective hand of Gaya?) which repels it and prevents its entry.
The clash of the solar wind with the magnetic field of the earth allows it to transfer energy and particles to earth’s atmosphere. These charged particles then collide with particles in the atmosphere, excite them, and take them to a higher state (scientifically speaking). To reach their most stable state (ground state- opposite of excited state) these particles release energy in the form of radiations. Some of these radiations are in the form of visible light and constitute the aurora.
Auroras are a common occurrence in the polar regions, though they may be witnessed in temperate latitudes as well. Scientists have named them “polar auroras”. The auroras occur in both the upper and lower hemisphere. They are called aurora borealis or the Northern Lights in the northern reaches of the planet and in the southern hemisphere, they are known as aurora australis or the Southern Lights.
Science has always strived to give a rational explanation to these phenomena which is far removed from the wraths of Gods and serpents. It has done a commendable job in removing darkness from lives. We no longer look at thunder and cower before the Gods’ displeasure. We no longer carry out sacrifices to please them and bless us with rain. Fear and superstitions are removed from our lives every day.
But that is not reason enough for us to dismiss our myths and scoff at them. After all, even the scientific explanations are the ones which have been born in the bosoms of our imagination coupled with our understanding of the world. Here is a toast to finding pots of gold at the end of every rainbow and trying to get a peek at Zeus when he bombards us with lightening in his moments of anger…